Meet your neighbor: The Elitch Theatre

‘This history needs to be saved’: Working to return 1891 theater to former glory


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Years before Michael Bliss started working at the Historic Elitch Theatre, he somehow had a feeling he would end up there.

The first time he realized that, he was taking a walk through the Elitch Gardens Carousel Pavilion. When Bliss looked across the lawn, he saw a bright gold sign that read “THEATRE”—a well-known component of the distinctly green, old-fashioned building that has been a part of Elitch Gardens for more than a century.

“I just put it out there — I thought, `I would like to be part of this theater,’ ” Bliss said.

Sure enough, his thought became a reality years later when, by chance, he was introduced to Tracy Frickey during an event. At the time, Frickey was president of the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the theater.

By 2016, Bliss had joined the nonprofit’s board of directors. He was hired as executive program director in 2018.

Mary Elitch, the businesswoman who founded Elitch Gardens with her husband John in 1890, added the theater at 4655 W. 37th Ave. in 1891.

Since then, the building has hosted renowned names in entertainment and the arts, such as Grace Kelly and Mickey Rooney, Bliss said. However, the building has deteriorated over the years and has not engaged in regular programming since 1991.

Hoping to put on events in the theater once again, Bliss and his colleagues are working to raise the money to restore the historical landmark and obtain a permanent occupancy permit.

Volunteers have already implemented the first two phases of restoration efforts, which were first conceived in 2002. Completed in 2014, they addressed the theater’s exterior as well as safety components of its interior.

However, a windstorm in April 2018 that inflicted damage to the property hampered further efforts.

According to Bliss, the damage was severe: the flagpole fell off the top of the theater, a portion of the roof was dented by debris and a piece of metal crashed onto an awning, knocking it off the building.

“It was a huge speedbump,” he said. “This has been our biggest setback.”

Bliss and other volunteers have spent the past year working to raise awareness around the damages, which will ultimately cost more than $1 million to fix. Though he hopes the theater will open its doors in 2020, he is unsure when repairs and renovations will be completed.

Frickey — who continued to volunteer after stepping down from the presidency — added that repairs must be completed before volunteers can draft plans for the final restoration phases.

Once the building has been repaired, the city will help pay for an analysis that will inform future construction plans, she said.

“We’ve never had the money to get those plans,” she said, “so this will really benefit us.”

Engaging children with the arts

Meanwhile, the theater continues to engage in fundraising efforts, not only to finance construction but also to fund programming.

Its programs currently take place in locations elsewhere in the city, which have been provided by Denver-based arts organizations,including Denver Open Media, Art from Ashes and the Bug Theatre.

As long as the nonprofit must borrow these spaces, Frickey said, the price of rent will add to total programming costs. She added that the board would prefer not to raise these extra funds by charging for their programs, many of which are free.

“We really want to be able to offer our programs free to underserved children,” she said.

Despite the fact that the programs are waiting for a permanent home, Bliss has made sure the theater’s efforts to engage children with the arts endure.

He views that goal as a continuation of the legacy established by Mary Elitch, who was highly motivated to teach children the arts and would hold a weekly Children’s Day that often included singing, dancing and botany lessons.

“By the early 1900s, more than 3,000 children were coming weekly to Children’s Day,” Bliss said.

That’s why Bliss wants to host at least 3,000 children at the theater’s 2019 Children’s Day International Film Festival, which will take place in September at the Bug Theatre.

Through this event, the Historic Elitch Theatre collaborates with the International Youth Silent Film Festival to accept silent film submissions created by children and families all over the world.

“We’ve received submissions from China, Australia, India, Qatar,” Bliss said. “We’ve gone global.”

In addition to Children’s Day, Bliss continues to organize regular programming. These events include open mic nights, which take place at 6 p.m. every third Friday at Denver Open Media, 700 Kalamath St.

The Elitch Theatre Academy also provides numerous opportunities for Colorado residents to develop their creativity through workshops that cover topics across the arts. Information on upcoming workshops, which vary in time and location, is posted on

The theater offers something for everyone, Bliss said, and provides a learning experience for “children of all ages — even adult children.”

“Our goal is to bring families together and to bring the arts back into our theater,” he said. “We really want to make the theater a cultural hub again — the legacy is so important, and this history needs to be saved.”


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